Ely is not an easy place to get to. The idyllic forest town of 3,000 near the Canadian border is best known as a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. You don't come upon this outdoor paradise by accident.
This is the town's blessing, but it also creates a problem for its police force. When an officer leaves next week for another job, the department's staffing will be down to five of seven officers, including the chief. Recruiting here is tough, especially as law enforcement nationwide confronts a recruitment and retention crisis.
Assistant Chief Mike Lorenz had a unique idea earlier this year: Why not tap into the area's greatest asset and offer new hires a free canoe?
"At first I laughed," said Ely Police Chief Chad Houde, who moved to Ely nearly two decades ago from the Twin Cities because he loved the outdoor opportunities. "We're primarily known as the gateway to the Boundary Waters. How do we sell that? And how do we retain our guys? We need to be creative. We need to stand out."
After getting approval from the City Council this week, Houde hopes their unusual offer — a free Kevlar canoe purchased from local retailers, plus two paddles and two lifejackets — will draw more applicants. The package is worth about $4,000.
Lorenz, the assistant chief, runs a guiding service, Gravel Lizard Guide Service. He's offering to take new hires on a guided fishing trip on Lake Vermilion.
Whether in Minnesota or on the coast, in big cities or small towns, staffing shortages are hampering law enforcement agencies nationwide. Earlier this year, Minneapolis police staffing dipped to its lowest level in at least four decades.
Police pay in Ely is good compared to surrounding communities. Starting pay is above $65,000 annually plus benefits, one of the highest starting salaries for law enforcement on the Iron Range, while a sergeant tops out at about $78,000. But the pay cannot compete with law enforcement agencies in bigger population centers.
In 2020, when Houde took over as chief, the agency had 25 applicants for one job posting. (The department ended up hiring three of them.) One opening in 2021 brought five applicants, then three applicants for two jobs in 2022. The one job the department posted this year had only one applicant.
"We're fighting for all these officers with other agencies," Houde said. "Other agencies are offering recruitment bonuses. How can we stand out differently than offering a $5,000 signing bonus? We have to look at what sells Ely, and that's our area."
The canoe package will be offered to new hires as well as to current police department employees as a retention bonus. The requirement will be to stay at least three years; if they don't stay that long, they'll have to pay back the department a prorated portion of the value of the canoe.
Houde hopes the offer drums up interest in a challenging hiring environment. He knows the easy jokes people have already started making online about a police department handing out canoes made of Kevlar, the material most commonly associated with bulletproof vests worn by police.
"These canoes are not bulletproof, I know that," he said.